Like many people I know, I just finished watching Shiny Happy People—that documentary about the Duggar family of the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting, their recent sexual abuse scandals,and the religious extremism behind that helps provide context for so much around this show and other American religio-political issues of the last few years. If you haven’t yet watched and want to, it’s on Amazon Prime video in the US. Today, I’m going to provide as few spoilers as possible, but I do want to dive into a broader teaching mentioned in the documentary that I’ve seen entirely much of in the broader Christian world. In short, the fact that too many Christians pattern their conflict management styles almost wholly on Matthew 18:15-17 combined with the concept of “turning the other cheek.” In this blog post I plan to unwrap some of the issues around treating that decontextualized verse as a one-size-fits-all approach to “spiritual” conflict management and suggest a better way.
A Content Note on the Documentary Before Beginning
Before diving in, a content warning on the documentary whose contents I’m referring to here: this documentary about the Duggar family and the damage of the ideologies they hold can be remarkably hard to take, whether or not you’re part of the fundamentalist background this family came from or a fan of the show, or even have heard of the show or this particular branch of fundamentalist Christianity.
But let me just say up front that it is well worth struggling through, especially if you didn’t grow up in or near this branch of fundamentalist Christianity yourself (or watch the Duggars on TV).
As briefly mentioned above, this documentary connects the ideologies to both religion and politics in really compellingly disturbing ways that help to explain some of the religio-political landscape in the US, especially some of the fascistic Christian nationalism rising up in recent years. (For instance, US Representative Madison Cawthorn is one of the people that rose up out of this movement that has had a very recent influence on the US political scene. He’s mentioned in the documentary.)
Not THAT Kind of Spoiler-y Review Article
That said, I’m not actually going that deeply into the documentary here, so don’t worry too much about spoiler alerts.
Instead, I’m focusing on one biblical passage—Matthew 18:15-17—that is briefly described in the documentary as being abused within the Gothard/IBLP/Quiverfull right-wing fundamentalist ideology that is the Duggars’ religio-political context. The documentary shows how messed up their usage of this Bible passage is within that movement.
Not Just the Duggars or IBLP’s Problem, Matthew 18
BUT ALSO, as I will argue if you give me a few minutes, that passage is a huge problem in other branches of Christianity as well.
It’s been something I’ve been meaning to blog about here for years, actually, so I’m thankful Shiny Happy People highlighted it briefly so I can hopefully help start to connect those dots at least a little bit.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m writing about this as a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate denomination in the US who went on to become a communication scholar studying and teaching about stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
There’s so d*mned much to unpack about all of that when it comes to this particular subject that I don’t have time to get into it here. But here’s the highlight reel.
So Yeah, Matthew 18’s Usage Bothered Me Long Before I Heard about Gothard and the Duggars
A few years before I started this Assertive Spirituality project (more than 5 years ago now!), I started wanting to speak into the Christian dialogue about Christians and conflict specifically because of the way I saw Matthew 18:15-17 (which I’ll explain more about in a minute) and “turn the other cheek” treated as pretty much the only spiritual way to respond to conflict in a lot of Christian contexts.
See, as someone who had been trained in communication studies and had been teaching university communication classes for a few years by that point, it was pretty incredibly clear to me that conflict management is a very complex and nuanced beast with lots of approaches necessary to make the right choice for the right situation.
What Happens When Bible Verses Get Taken Out of Context and Seen as One-Size-Fits-All
As a result, it really began to bother me that pretty much everything I was hearing in the admittedly white and middle class and Evangelical-leaning part of the Christian world I was privy to was based on very literally applying Matthew 18:15-17 and “turn the other cheek” as the only “spiritual” conflict management responses to EVERY SINGLE SITUATION.
The Duggars documentary Shiny Happy People does an incredibly good job at explaining exactly why this is a problem in so many contexts.
See, when so much emphasis is placed on “accommodation as the most spiritual thing” and “going through channels when there’s a problem,” well, any kind of power imbalance is likely to be heightened. It’s also a huge problem, as seen in the documentary but as I’ve previously highlighted here, when every conflict is seen to be rooted in problems of sin, especially sin on all sides.
Time to Talk about That Matthew 18 Passage
But before I dive too far into that, let me go over what Matthew 18:15-17 says and what its context is.
Here is what the verses say:
“’If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.’” (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV).
Let me quickly note that this passage outlines a situation involving a person who has seemingly clearly sinned. (I’ll get into more why that’s both important and often an issue in a moment.)
The ”Church” Elephant in the Passage
I also have to point out that when I pulled up the verses on my phone in the NIV translation, I had to laugh that both the header of the section and the verses themselves use the word “church” as part of the translation.
This is utterly ridiculous when you look at it in context. These verses are framed as Jesus speaking to his disciples long before his death. Why in the world would he be using the word “church”?
If he was, he certainly wasn’t using it in the way we do today.
Anyway, that’s an important bit about these verses in translation—the English translations today often frame these words as though they were setting up a one-size-fits-all way to deal with sin in any organized institutional church.
Hasty Generalizations Are a Huge Problem With This Passage
From what I can tell from translation notes by others who know the original languages, Jesus was only talking about some likely small collection of his followers when he was giving these instructions.
Jesus was of course also speaking 2000+ years ago into people in a totally different culture and cultural position from many who are applying it now.
In short, there’s a VERY good chance that he was actually suggesting something that was rather less generalizable to our present era and situations than a lot of Christians today tend to assume it is.
And Yet It Too Often Forms the Basis of Institutional Church Procedures
And yet, I can’t imagine that my right-leaning moderate cradle denomination isn’t the only one that uses this passage as a huge basis for a lot of institutional procedures regarding conflict, including, highly problematically, situations addressing abuses of power by clergy.
See, this passage, when paired with the “turn the other cheek” passage, too often takes people who are trying out other appropriate conflict styles and tells them they are guilty of sin for “not following biblical conflict management procedure.”
This is a spiritually abusive concept called sin-leveling, as I previously discussed here. To quickly describe sin-leveling, this is the idea that all sins are equally a problem. Which means that victims of people who have abused them in various ways are often “called out on a technicality” to be seen as “just as guilty” as those who hurt them.
In short, seeing Matthew 18 as the ONLY form of “properly spiritual” conflict management encourages victim-blaming via procedural sin-leveling.
It’s a huge problem that is ripe for abuse, especially in situations where you might be trying to hold people in power to account for egregious misconduct of various types.
Power Dynamics a Problem
The problem, of course, is that Jesus was speaking into a context that he was consciously emphasizing in this chapter ought not be hierarchical. AND YET most of today’s contexts, especially in institutional church settings, involve power dynamics at play.
In short, by overspiritualizing certain forms of conflict management and ignoring other reasonable options, there’s plenty of space for people to abuse these verses and to victim-blame people and pile on spiritual abuse to situations that these verses may not be appropriate for at all.
Back to Shiny Happy People
The Shiny Happy People documentary illustrates perfectly how this works in high relief. After all, it shows an extremely authoritarian, militaristic form of cultic religious extremism.
In that kind of authoritarian situation, it’s fairly clear how the structures are set up invoking Matthew 18 conflict management in order to sabotage any internal complaints by those who have been hurt by the system.
And seeing as how the documentary glances on how these teachings had infiltrated the Southern Baptist Convention in the US, it’s not hard to understand how these churches came to sweep so many sexual abuse cases under the rug (I spoke about this glancingly here and here).
So Yeah, It’s Not That There Are No Situations Where Matthew 18 Is Appropriate
I mean, sure, there are very reasonable and practical reasons why it’s a good idea for many NORMAL person situations for the person to talk to a person directly before saying something in other contexts. And why if someone doesn’t listen to you, you can bring in more and more people, etc.
There is reason and logic here, again, for normal types of misunderstandings.
But in situations of, say, abuse? Or criminal behavior? Or situations like that of the IBLP organization where the entire “church” organization is premised on excusing “sins” and sweeping real evidence-based major problems under the rug?
Nope, this isn’t the most reasonable situation for those situations AT ALL.
Conflict Isn’t Always Even a Question of Sin—What a Disturbing Idea!
In fact, in a lot of those and other situations, boiling things down to a question of “sin” or lack thereof is too often super reductive. After all, and this feels quite radical to say in light of my lifetime of experiences in the institutional church, but some conflicts actually don’t relate to sin at all.
And sometimes—let’s be clear—there is absolutely a sinner and a sinned against. And sometimes power dynamics, charisma, or other variables, can obscure who is who. And manipulative bullies are entirely too good at gaming these sorts of processes to try to come out as, well, the shiny happy non-sinning folks in the picture.
What Would Jesus Do? (Spoiler: Take Care of the Vulnerable)
In those kinds of situations, as with domestic violence situations and abuse situations elsewhere, speaking directly to the people involved as one’s first course of action can be profoundly unsafe for the person who was most injured in the situation.
Just pause a moment and imagine in some sort of crime drama when a potential victim of a serial killer comes and reports to the police, but they stop and say, “but wait! You need to go and talk to the serial killer about this in person first! And then come back and THEN we can come with you along with a couple of church elders, and maybe then pull your pastor into the picture!”
Again, not getting into details about the documentary here, but if you have an entire group of people who have been trained in authoritarian beliefs and that your only job in life is to accommodate to anyone in authority over you, well, this system would chew up these verses and spit you out if you try to call out anyone in authority using this “conflict management system.”
The Need for a Broader Range of Responses to Conflict!
The realization I had come to long before I knew anything about the Duggars, much less their religious context, and long before I watched this documentary—one of the reasons I started this project—is that Matthew 18:15-17, especially when accompanied by “turn the other cheek,” is profoundly vulnerable to all sorts of problems when seen as the “most spiritual” form of conflict management.
Which, even when you look at the Bible, is really a problem. Because it doesn’t take much to find a MUCH MUCH WIDER ARRAY of conflict management styles and approaches in its pages.
Looking at this verse next to the wealth of conflict management styles and resources that are available in the scholarly community regarding conflict management helped me see JUST HOW UNHEALTHY this kind of one-size-fits-all biblical prooftexting can be.
Again, Not Just an Extremist Problem
The Shiny Happy People documentary just gives a super powerful example of one way that can work in one particularly egregious set of instances.
But as noted above, in “ordinary” church rhetoric and in less extreme denominations and parachurch organizations this verse, especially when combined with subtle ideas of “turn the other cheek” and overemphasis on humility, can also cause an awful lot of damage.
The Danger of a Single Story/Verse
As Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie said in her fabulous “Danger of a Single Story” Ted Talk I previously referenced here, the danger of a single story is not that it is wrong, it is that it is incomplete.
The same goes with Matthew 18:15-17 and/or “turn the other cheek” as a form of conflict management.
Let’s Pull In Some Wisdom Literature, Shall We?
Into these lessons those who are still in institutional church contexts would do well to draw from another part of the Bible—the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for everything under the sun.”
“To Everything…(Turn Turn Turn)…” A Different Conflict Management Response
There’s a time for Matthew 18. And there are situations where people perceive conflict when there may or may not be “sin” involved at all.
(And if there is, perhaps sometimes there’s only one “sinner” in the mix—or at least one primary sinner.)
And yeah, sure, there is a time for Matthew 18:15-17. But there’s also a time for public issues to be dealt with publicly.
There’s a time for turning the other cheek, and there’s a time for calling the authorities.
There’s a time for calling on the Bible for our conflict management wisdom, and there’s a time for calling on the wisdom of so many other wise people researching and practicing conflict management outside of church contexts.
And so on, and so forth.
Time to Rely on Expertise and Authority Outside of the Church!
If there’s only one lesson we can learn from the unhealthy dynamics shown in the Shiny Happy People documentary, that is, after all, that too much reliance only on a certain kind of inside baseball-type expertise without being balanced and held accountable by outside expertise and forces can turn ugly awfully quickly.
May we all learn important lessons from this case in point, wherever we are on the religio-political spectrum. And whether we’re in or out of the church, may we seek to help hold the church accountable for healthier, broader ranges of conflict management practices as well as healthier practices in general.
A Final Charge
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